21 Aug

Writing in the Age of machine translations.

Remarks on a translational poetic practice.

I would like to start by giving you a brief idea of what I mean with translational poetics, then I will continue with explaining how GT works, before discussing the practice in the context of questions concerning writing and reading, and I will finish with a text that I wrote in this manner, and is still in progress.

So, let me start: what happens if we take Kant’s categorical imperative in its most prominent wording, I quote:

“Act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law without contradiction.”

And translate it, as quoted, with Google Translate trough all languages available – starting with Afrikaans, ending with Zulu – and ended up with the latter, then translated back to English?

Can you guess what came out in the end? It’s

“News and much more!”

I admit that this is the case only by chance and might have changed already, still this output demands for a reaction! The usual way to do so, is to blame machine translations, computer linguists and Google – but this critique is rather boring and frankly spoken also dangerous, because it criticises only an insufficient system and ends – so to speak – in a conservative dead-end because there is not much land to gain by insisting on insufficiency without questioning or asking what the whole system is about.

However, we also have other possibilities to react to this seemingly rather arbitrary translation of the Kantian categorical imperative – we can regard it as a poetic correspondence between

Kant and our age. Between the way Kant formulated his sentence and the way Google tells us what to do. Interestingly the sentence keeps its form as an imperative, as the exclamation mark shows. And the translation reads – not like a moral – but rather a descriptive actualization of the categorical imperative in the age of digital capitalism and internet economy. This is the core of what we call translational poetic practices.

You might want to ask, how one can be so brutal to such heroic texts and sentences. Before returning to this question I want to elaborate how this correspondence came into being.

What happens when we use tools, such as Google Translate?

If we take a closer look, on how GT works, we could describe it – as Samuel Eberenz points out – as a ‘structuralist activity’, a term coined by Roland Barthes. According to Barthes, the goal of any structuralist activity is to reconstruct an object in such a way that it will manifest the rules of functioning (‘the functions’) of this object. The reconstruction happens not by reasoning, rather by a ‘mimesis’ of its functions. If we consider paradigmatic (words and their meanings) and syntagmatic (grammatical rules) to be the functions of a text, Google Translate does exactly that. It carries out a Mimesis via the translation of n-grams based on a statistical exploitations of its corpora consisting literature, multi-lingual documents such as protocols of the EU council and the UN (c.f. Kaplan 2015/Eberenz 2015). Machine translation tools do a reconstruction of an initial text in a target language – usually with English as intermediate language.

I could tell you a lot more about how Google Translate works, but the technical details are rather uninspiring and not so much of our interest here. Instead I want to discuss some aspects of our translational poetics that I find suitable for this context.

Firstly, one could say that the book is endangered by digital technologies – which is probably one reason for us being here. But one could ask, is it really the book as a specific materialization of texts or is it textuality itself which is about to change, textuality with all its accompanied practices such as our ability and habits of writing and reading, and questions like how authorship changes, when more and more written texts are created automatically? Be it for the worse or the better, textuality is questioned and at stake. I neither know a simple nor a difficult answer to these questions. I don’t know how the digital will transform us and our lives. But, translational writing is one way of paying attention to these changes, be it a playful and aesthetic way of observing machine translation and the automatic text generation.

Secondly, Translational poetics, is a way of dealing with the power structures of digital capitalism. And maybe one could say, that companies like Google are at the centre of such an evolution – if such a place exists. By handing over the production of meaning and sense to a

company, these practices question the technical, the digital and our behaviour towards the internet, just by dealing with them in a playful way, by carrying out translations.

And with that, thirdly, it quotes and asks for an actualization of the practices of classical avant-garde, such as ecriture automatique, oulipo, situationism, (un)-creative and post-human approaches in writing. So it asks for possible poetic practices in the age of the digital without a concrete answer outside of the practice itself.

I want to finish with a text I wrote a few months ago, and that I’m still working on. Actually it’s a translation of its German ‘Equivalent’ – with the title “Sagen Sie es dem Turm! Oder vom verwirren der Sprachen” – done in a performative way with GT and only little post- editing.

Tell it to the tower! Or how to puzzle languages.

Language and voice are accessible to everybody. Every word is a language. However, Silence. Silence without talking. A simple statement that they live there. Even if they come and take what they want. The languages will be burned. Milk stone and asphalt each other, and we baked bread in the brick building, concrete, stone, brick, and stone and mud. We, the things and our playground is of Cement and Atereta. No one hears our language, who speaks another. We speak softly, so that no one hears us.

Men are building airplanes and men are flying to the sky, but tomorrow the City Tower will stop them. Machines, Tower, Pilots and professions.

Then we take out of the city and out of the tower. Our environment for us, and to rise above the building. The purpose of progress in the whole world will remain unscathed, perhaps – but certainly be the subject above the words, will stop us to go further. But we, we went up, up to its name, when he said: Behold the man!

I just saw people, and how they spoke one and the same language, but not heard their voices. Too far away they were. The dominance of the people, their radio communication – which ended where no radio reception was. The dominance of progress – who will go on? Tower: Me. The Lord of the tower calls the City and their three sons.

The only language of the world, he said. But this is the beginning. He said: I’m just one of those people who live in a language – and see it! It is their language, their language, as if it is their language. But this is only a first attempt, let us fly. We will have to combine our languages, as we are not different. Laws and grammatical rules have become mandatory. We can no longer fly above the tower. The tower tells us when we can fly.

Your work. Now it’s gone, as it seems. No one will understand the text, he said, let us confuse their language! To understand people, will be impossible.

We are disappointed if we do not understand. Language, complex language, and beyond it – nothing.

Come! Let us destroy our languages; us and our, our own language, and so we have no other. No other. This, in different corners of the world – everywhere. Nothing but confusion, linguistic confusion and lack of understanding in one name: Babylon.

Thank you for your attention! I’m looking forward to an interesting discussion with you.


  • BARTHES, ROLAND (2008): “Die Strukturalistische Tätigkeit”. In: In Kimmich, Dorothee (2008): Texte zur Literaturtheorie der Gegenwart. Stuttgart: Reclam.
  • EBERENZ, SAMUEL (2015): “A Translational Poetic Practice”. On the uncreative potential of statistical computer translation. Unpublished Manuscript.
  • KAPLAN, FREDERIC & DIANA KIANFAR (2015): “Und dann wird es Hunde und Katzen regnen”. Googles Übersetzungsdienst und die Zukunft der Sprachen. In: LE MONDE DIPLOMATIQUE. http://www.monde- diplomatique.de/pm/2015/01/09.mondeText.artikel,a0060.idx,23 (last access: 16.03.2015).
  • SCHEIDEGGER, STEFAN (2015): “Sagen Sie es dem Turm! Oder vom Verwirren der Sprachen”. /translation: “Say it to the Tower! From Puzzling Languages”. Work in process.
  • SCHIEBINGER, LONDA (2014): “Scientific Research must take gender into account”. In: Nature 507, 9 (06 March 2014). In: http://www.nature.com/news/scientific-research-must-take- gender-into-account-1.14814 (last access: 16.03.2015)